It’s always sunny in Watopia: Confessions of a late Zwift adopter

I was dead against it.

It just seemed so unlike cycling to me. At the best of times indoor training was misery, a 20-minute FTP test or a step test, and that was what made it acceptable. It conjured a sort of cold British stoicism, a deterrent from the slightest impulse to skip a rainy Sunday morning ride in sub-zero temperatures.

Then the video game turned up. Zwift crept into the cycling world like a newcomer to a chain gang decked out in Ineos kit from head to toe. At first most were standoffish, embarrassed and unsure, but one by one my riding pals seemed to warm to this unusual intruder.

As serious racers and WorldTour pros have turned to the platform, it has begun to work its way into the landscape of cycling culture. Now it sits alongside winter bikes and spring training camps amid the cafe stop chatter.

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Admittedly, I was soured by Zwift’s predecessors. Not to name any names, but many will recall the sort of virtual reality cycling simulations that required you to buy an HDMI adapter of UNESCO-protected level rarity alongside a laptop dedicated solely to maintaining uniquely esoteric software. All for a slightly jittery Nintendo 64 tier experience, or a strikingly slow-moving tour of Google street view.

Zwift was different, everyone assured me. But I resisted.

I thought of myself like Henri Desgrange, declaring proudly, ‘Isn’t it better to triumph by the strength of your muscles than by the artifice of a derailer? We are getting soft; as for me, give me a fixed gear!’ 

I wonder what Desgrange, who rode a fixed gear on gravel tracks for 400km a day and for whom the concept of shifting gear for ease was a personal emotional insult, would make of our Dyson-cooled Spotify-accompanied indoor training sessions?

But recent events overpowered my prejudice. It wasn’t even the first lockdown that lured me, but the cold and dark winter months that contained the second Covid-19 lockdown. My dusty turbo, sitting in front of a rain-splattered patio window, seemed to leave me little alternative. In truth, staring at my Strava feed saturated with virtual rides – I also felt a tad left out.

The rest is a story many of us will know well. Riding over the initial KOM, the intermediate sprints, bridging 2m gaps simply for the satisfaction of flashing white text, I had two startling realisations. Firstly, I was absolutely exhausted and sweating buckets, and secondly – for the first time in my life I was enjoying being on the turbo.

I suppose it was the realism of Zwift that endeared me most. Granted, riding through an active volcano is a rarity, but there was something strangely real about the experience. The false summits that revealed a 10% wall ahead, the gaps to a fast group that I just couldn’t quite bridge. I swear I’ve seen an icy gust of wind catch my front wheel on the Stelvio pass in the exact same way as the punishing final 3km extension of the Epic KOM.

It reminded me of my first forays into Strava, when I’d extend my commute home by 10km on a sunny evening to take on that one segment I swore I could do 3-seconds quicker. Similarly, I found myself perplexed in recent weeks when I opted to hop on my turbo for an ‘easy’ 20km spin on Zwift at 8.45pm. And perplexed further still to discover I’m in a heap gasping for air on the living room floor 45 minutes later.

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You have to admire the psychological cues Zwift has mastered, the subtle graphics that reward hard efforts, the floating thumbs up that validate a brief cyber-friendship, the abstract comfort of moving from level 7 to level 8. True to my real world riding, there’s a spirit of exploration that seems to have captured me too. I found myself pondering the geography of the Fuego Flats or Titan’s Grove over lunch.

Milan Kundera once wrote that happiness is the longing for repetition. Perhaps that’s what makes the world of Zwift so appealing. At any time of day or year, the sunny climes of Watopia, or France, London or New York, sit waiting. The same riders sit just 2m away, beckoning you to bridge the gap. And of course those unforgivable weight dopers continue to sweep past at 4.2 watts/kg. Suddenly, the outdoors seems so unappealing – an analogue cycling experience.

Still, I can’t shake some existential fear of a world of cycling without the punishing downsides. Is a ride a real ride without that rear tyre that refuses to stop going flat, that freezing winter downpour that renders stabbing pains when you eventually warm up hours later? Even the occasional altercation with an insufferable driver seems like an organic part of the experience of being a cyclist. Cycling outdoors is innately real, and surely there’s a value to that?

You would be excused for wondering if this may be the dystopian future that philosophers have long foretold, where we give up the real world to embrace an artificial reality. Where a virtual reality training app once helped us prepare for outdoor bike races, now we train for the bike races that exist purely on virtual reality apps.

Concerned as I might be about the philosophical significance of simulacra, simulation and reality in cycling, it’s still far warmer indoors.

So, perhaps we’ve all become trapped in a rejection of reality, a world without cars or rain or flat tyres. But, I can’t help wondering what was so brilliant about reality. After all, unlike the unforgiving lanes of Surrey, it is always sunny in Watopia.

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